Asthma: a killer on the rise

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More than 5,000 children and adults die from the complications of asthma each year and the disease is on the rise. But it need not be so, says a Carson City expert.

According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the number of cases diagnosed nationally has more than doubled over the last decade and Nevada has the highest incidence in the United States.

Thirteen percent of the population here has been diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lives.

There is no cure for this chronic condition that restricts airways, but treatments are highly effective and most fatalities can be easily prevented, according to Carson City physician Dr. Stuart Stoloff, a nationally recognized expert in the field.

"There are a number of theories and many complex reasons for the increase in occurrence of this disease, but the medications we have now are excellent," he said. "The best treatment is an educated patient and care giver. When diagnosed and treated properly, people get their lives back."

Asthma affects about 5 million children under the age of 14 and is the primary reason for hospitalization in that group. Ten million school days are lost and controlling the disease costs Americans between $13 to $16 billion annually, a figure that could be reduced with proper treatment, according to Stoloff.

"The primary problem lies in the fact that patients and their caregivers don't think asthma is a serious disease. Asthma is both chronic and serious," Stoloff said. "People assume that only those who are very ill are at risk of dying from the disease, but in truth anyone who has asthma is at risk."

During an attack, the muscles of the bronchial tree become tight and the lining of air passages swells, reducing airflow and causing chest tightness, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. The disease is fatal when the airways become so restricted that the patient cannot breathe.

It's a complex condition with a variety of symptom-triggering factors, including allergies, viral infections, exercise, cold air or stress and it can easily be confused with other conditions.

Studies in both the United States and abroad indicate that asthma is both under-diagnosed and under-treated. In many cases, the disease is treated with cough syrup, according to Stoloff.

"Clinicians, physicians, and other health care professionals are often reluctant to call a chronic condition asthma," Stoloff said. "But identifying the disease early and providing appropriate medications is critical in both pediatric and adult patients. Asthma is sometimes like a fire. If we don't recognize when it's smoldering, someone will get burned."

The disease is usually very responsive to inhaled steroids, which are given in low doses with minimal side effects.

"We want to secure not only the well-being, but good lung growth and health by identifying the disease early and providing appropriate medications critical to all patients," Stoloff said. "Sixteen percent of the gold medals at the Olympics went to athletes with asthma. If they can do that, why is it so hard to diagnose and treat other people with the disease?"

A specialist in this field, Stoloff holds many distinctions. He is a member of the task force on allergic disorders of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and serves as an associate to the editorial advisory board of Respiratory Digest.


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